Legislators running lobbyists' gantlet As assembly session nears end, persuasion takes on new urgency

March 31, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

As Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell strode into the Maryland State House for Friday morning's floor session, lobbyists gathered like autograph seekers around a backstage door.

A woman from Planned Parenthood met him at the building's entrance with a gentle reminder to push a bill that would protect patient confidentiality. Another lobbyist took him aside to ask why a vote on hiring more Baltimore judges had been delayed. A third just wanted to know why they hadn't talked in a while.

"Are you mad at me?" the lobbyist asked.

During his 39-foot walk from the door to the velvet ropes that cordon off the entrance to the Senate chamber, Mr. Bromwell, a Democrat from Baltimore County, spoke to six advocates representing a variety of interests, from Orioles owner Peter G. -- Angelos to bricklayers. And he did it all in about a minute.

"I think it's typical," Mr. Bromwell said, unfazed by the attention and frenzied pace.

"The thing is, you have to know what's in every bill. That's what kills you."

Running the lobbyist gantlet is a spring rite in Annapolis. In some ways, it is a microcosm of the 90-day General Assembly session -- in which myriad interests work to protect or promote their causes. But with little more than a week left before the legislature adjourns April 8, business at 100 State Circle has taken on a greater sense of urgency.

Advocates fill the marble hallway each morning seeking to influence lawmakers' votes, answer their questions, thank them for their help or just be seen. Armed with leaflets and dressed in everything from tasseled loafers to sneakers, they offer a "Cliffs Notes" version of legislation they want passed or killed.

Hundreds of people register to lobby state government each year at salaries that range from less than $30,000 to many times that. During the session, several dozen regulars show up every day.

Some stake out the back stairs that lawmaker use to avoid the crowd. Others wait at the legislative office buildings a block away and talk to delegates and senators on their walk to the State House.

Before crucial votes, lobbyists will continue talking to legislators until the moment the final bell rings, the mahogany chamber doors shut and the floor sessions begin.

"It's a marvelously efficient operation," said Paul A. Tiburzi, a Baltimore attorney and lobbyist who represents various companies pushing tort reform this year. "A lot of business can be done in 10 or 15 minutes. You have to talk fast and think fast, but you can get it done."

On Friday, Mr. Tiburzi was working to delay action on a bill he would rather not discuss in the newspaper.

He had been hired the night before, and the bill was scheduled to be on the floor Friday morning. He needed a senator to delay it, so he could find time to rally opposition.

Enter Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican, and -- helpfully -- an ally from the tort reform issue.

"Can I ask you for a favor on a bill?" asked Mr. Tiburzi, showing the senator a copy of the proposed legislation. For credibility, Mr. Tiburzi explained that in addition to his client, the state insurance agency also opposed the bill.

After a brief conversation, Mr. Ferguson agreed to make a motion on the Senate floor to delay consideration of the bill.

"See you, thanks Tim," Mr. Tiburzi said, patting the senator on the back.

Mr. Tiburzi, wasn't finished, though. He began scanning the hallway in search of another senator, just in case Mr. Ferguson happened to be in the bathroom when the bill came up on the floor.

"For an insurance policy, you always try to find somebody else," he said.

Working the State House hallway, lobbyists have developed subtle techniques for gathering and disseminating information. Some use "the lean," in which one lobbyist leans over slightly and tilts his head to overhear another. Conversely, others have perfected the ability to talk softly enough so that their words go no further than the intended listener.

Lobbyist Alan M. Rifkin gave a demonstration when he discussed the Baltimore judges bill with Mr. Bromwell. Without getting too close to the senator's face, Mr. Rifkin angled his head in such a way that he conveyed his message while remaining inaudible to a reporter straining to hear just a few feet away.

For all the energy that goes into late-session lobbying, few votes are ever changed in the hallway, both lobbyists and legislators say. Most issues in Annapolis aren't new and, in many cases, lawmakers have had a chance to review the pros and cons.

"Generally speaking, most of us know how we feel about an issue," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Often, lobbyists simply play defense, making sure no one sabotages a bill they want -- or slides one through that they don't in the blizzard of legislation that defines the final days. Mr. Tiburzi has already helped kill a bill for his tort reform clients. But he is keeping an eye out in case it resurfaces as an amendment to another bill.

"As people say, it's Easter time and sometimes bills get resurrected here," Mr. Tiburzi said.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, a lobbyist for the environmental group Clean Water Action, says she stands in the hallway, in part, to let legislators know that the group's members are watching how they vote. Later, she will sit in the balcony facing lawmakers.

"Visibility is half of it," said Ms. Schmidt-Perkins, who wore a blue denim dress and running shoes.

If there is any rule in working the hallway, it is never let them see you sweat. In a place where perception is often reality, desperation is as repelling as bad breath.

Even facing a tight vote, most veteran lobbyists exude a cool demeanor that matches their pressed shirts and conservative suits.

"The key is to stay focused and measured and keep your eye on the goal line," said Mr. Rifkin. "And if all else fails, remind yourself that the legislature meets every year."

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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